Breathing is an amazing and automatic process that we can easily take for granted. From 12 to 20 times every minute of every day, we take a breath. But most of us give little thought to ways in which we can influence the mind-body connection simply by making subtle yet powerful changes in the pattern of our breath.
The fight-or-flight response
Imagine you are already running late for an important meeting when suddenly you get stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle on a narrow, two-lane road. When we encounter a stressful situation like this, our nervous system triggers our stress, or fight-or-flight, response. This leads to an increase in heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, among other things.
Unfortunately, we can’t just beam ourselves up out of these stressful situations that are so common in our modern world. So what can we do to counteract the attack on our nervous system?
Calming the stress response
Before worrying about the effects of the stress response when your body is in fight-or-flight mode, take a moment to be thankful for the miraculous process of your stress response. It is there to literally save your life in an emergency! For many of us, however, the nervous system is in overdrive and may be easily triggered. One of the best ways to calm an overly stressed mind is to use deep breathing.
Deep breathing is a mindful breathing technique that is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. The sequence of rushing hormones and the unpleasant effects that happen when you are stressed all decrease as soon as you control your breathing. From a mental health standpoint, deep breathing can help to:
- Regulate emotions
- Increase resilience in coping with stress, anxiety, anger, and depression
- Decrease the stress response
- Help manage panic attacks
- Improve focus and concentration
As mentioned, the psychological changes that occur from deep, controlled breathing can lead to even greater lasting physical benefits as well, including:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Improved sleep cycle and quality
- Better digestion
- Improved core muscle stability
- Increased rest/digestion/relaxation/regeneration response
- Improved respiratory function
Spiritual benefits of mindful breathing
Along with its mental and physical benefits, mindful breathing can also be a spiritual experience. As a yoga teacher, I look at breath from the yogic perspective. The fourth limb of yoga is called pranayama. In Sanskrit, “prana” means “life force” and “yama” means “control.” So in a spiritual sense, yoga is designed to regulate prana, your vital life force.
When you practice this type of mindful breathing, you can move beyond your current situation to gain a fresh and healthy perspective and connect with your higher power, your life force. This enables you to know and fulfill your true purpose.
When you take just 5 minutes to breathe and reflect, you’ll feel more in tune with your core and know that you are made for more than just reacting! One of my favorite quotes to reflect on while doing breathwork is the simple phrase, “Be still…and know.”
Patience is a virtue
As you practice controlled, deep breathing, keep in mind that it takes about two minutes of mindful breath to switch over from the sympathetic nervous response, aka fight or flight, to a parasympathetic response. So it’s important to give yourself time and patience to get there and really pay attention to the process of breathing deeply. I also like to focus on gratitude to further help the body shift to that calming response.
Mindful breathing tips & techniques
It’s important to be proactive with your deep breathing because the more we can increase the good hormones in our body and decrease the stress, the better off we will be. The good news is that there are literally hundreds of different breathing techniques to choose from. A few of my favorite ones are Belly Breathing, 4-7-8 Breath, Equal Breathing, and Ocean Breath. I provide a walk-through of these techniques in a segment of my Mindful Breathing Webinar here. You can also learn more about these deep breathing exercises for respiratory health here.
Whatever breathing exercise you choose to use, there are some basic tips to follow to get the most out of your breathwork:
- Eliminate distractions
- Take a moment to observe how you feel before you begin mindful breathing
- Close your eyes and get comfortable
- Whether lying down or sitting up, think about lengthening your spine and relaxing your shoulders down and back.
- Use your hands to accompany breathing techniques (i.e., palms in prayer, palms up, palms down, one hand at the heart and one below)
- Listen for your breath and feel the connection that your mind has to your breath
- Become aware of the mind, body, and spirit connection you are making
- After using a breathing technique for a few minutes, notice again how you feel
To get the most out of your mindful breathing, I recommend doing breathing exercises at least once or twice per day. About 5 to 10 minutes each time is all you need to experience the amazing benefits of deep breathing. Doing the exercises at the same time each day is also a good idea to reinforce the habit.
Lastly, I also like to add aromatherapy using essential oils to my deep breathing exercises. Some of my favorites are grounding/balancing blends containing spruce, frankincense, and blue tansy, or uplifting blends containing citrus and vanilla. Good individual oils include cedarwood, rosemary, basil, myrrh, sandalwood, eucalyptus, and mint. You can diffuse these into the air or put them on yourself to experience even greater mindful breathing benefits!
About Margaret Norman
Yoga is a passion that has been with Margaret Norman through life’s many ups and downs. As a certified yoga and fitness professional, yoga studio owner, diabetes prevention counselor, and wellness advocate for almost two decades, it is her desire to help others overcome past traumas and perceived roadblocks and create a purposeful life filled with peace and joy. To learn more about Margaret and her yoga studio, visit her here.